published: 23 /
Producer Peter Waterman talks to Malcolm Carter about his mobile studio Longcroft Recording, how his career has survived lockdown and working with Southend-on-Sea trio In Earnest on their remarkable New EP, ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’.
Even though somehow some exciting, new, music has managed to reach us during the pandemic, we all know only too well that, as with many professions, the music industry has suffered so badly many of our favourite artists and bands seem to have simply disappeared. The lack of live gigs has destroyed many a budding music career, and, although some indie artists have managed to survive, there’s no denying that times have changed and it’s going to take some time, if ever, to return to the music scene we all knew and loved.
While the focus has been on the musicians and club owners that have suffered during the pandemic and how difficult it has been, lockdowns have obviously affected the whole spectrum of those involved in making and promoting music. One of the areas that we don’t often hear about is that of the producer. Being one of those obsessives who always has to check out those names in the brackets whenever a new album arrives, my eyes firstly search out the name of the producer. Now with streaming and downloads the information as to who actually produced a track is often missing and many are not bothered about such things. But we should all be. While many artists think they are quite capable of producing their own tracks, especially after being in a studio a time or two, the truth is that it involves a lot more skill than many realise.
Peter Waterman is a producer whose name has already appeared on a number of albums. When lockdown arrived Waterman’s work as a producer was, like all others, hit badly. But Waterman had the foresight to begin changing his recording methods before we had even heard of Covid 19. He’s been running a mobile recording studio, named Longcroft Recording, for five years now which involves booking AirBnBs and turning them into temporary recording spaces which has proved successful for the producer and allowed him to carry on producing.
His latest project is an EP with In Earnest and, not only does it feature Waterman’s trademark production, but the six songs are presented in a continuous loop which makes a beautiful, atmospheric set of songs even more affecting. The EP, ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’, is, simply, a great piece of art, unlike any other set of songs released this year.
It’s always a pleasure to put a few questions to Waterman; his enthusiasm for music and his part in making it is infectious and shines through in his answers as he explains a little about his past work, his new set-up and the equipment he uses and, of course, the In Earnes’ EP.
PB: It’s been a few years since we last spoke to you and so much has changed in the world. With many bands not being able to record what has the affect of the pandemic had on you and your work?
PETER WATERMAN: It’s obviously had a detrimental impact on everyone. The thing is it’s still having a longer-term impact today, due to various financial difficulties and travel restrictions on top of everything else mental health wise. Many of the acts I was due to work with in 2020 were unable to afford to, losing their main income through live music. It still feels as if there is huge uncertainty today and some of them haven’t been in contact, or indeed recorded with anyone else.
I’m lucky that I was financially propped up by lecturing at Buckinghamshire New University for most of the academic year. A large amount of musicians, artists, engineers and producers, some of them friends, have fallen away and given up and I can’t blame them. It was a tough industry before all of this.
It is difficult to feel more sorry for our industry when it’s affected absolutely everyone, although we did seem to be one of the least financially protection sectors by the UK government. Even when bands could afford to record in the UK on location in 2020, many of those locations were then booked up due to the travel restrictions as more and more people holidayed within the UK rather than flying abroad. Also, people did a lot of recording themselves at home and now post-lockdown, recording in a home environment is off the menu and no longer unique because artists think they’ve been doing that already themselves. Now they want that expensive studio environment to make it feel real. That’s put my recording philosophy at a bit of a disadvantage coming out of the lockdowns.
PB: Do you feel that your particular profession will ever return to how it was pre-2020?
PW: In all honesty, I hope not. This is just my honest opinion but it felt to me that before 2020 the entire industry was barely being held together at all. Hardly anyone was able to make it as a career, no matter how talented, how many opportunities they got or how many big named artists they had worked with, and there is still huge disparity between the creator and their potential income and so what independent artists are capable of paying for undermines other careers such as mine within that independent sector as well.
If I had known how difficult this was going to be, I may not have touched it at all. I just love it too much to give it up. I don’t mean to sound negative but there are a large amount of terrible stories I was aware of or indeed witness to pre-2020 regarding publishing deals, touring, broken promises etc. The lessons I’ve learnt through the 2010s era make me a much more level-headed and patient producer and engineer today to help guide and aid independent artists simultaneously.
Streaming still needs massive reform. Female artists still need to be given fairer opportunities when it comes to live events and festivals. What even is that about? The LGBTQ+ still needs fairer opportunities as well. These things and many others haven’t changed at all since 2020, but I do feel some things have shifted. It feels a little bit like a reset in a way. An overly saturated market is now slightly less saturated in varying areas. I’m not sure that’s going to help anyone but I do think it will make potential future music industry enthusiasts think twice. The golden era is so far in the past and it’s such common knowledge how difficult this all is and how little money can change hands despite so called ‘success’. Will we be buying or paying premium to stream Dolby Atmos mixes and masters in the future? I’m unsure what will reignite a larger and fairer income stream for producers if anything at all. It’s just going to be a struggle for all of us unless we get some sort of break which opens up bigger and better opportunities.
PB: You’ve set up a mobile recording studio (Longcroft Recording) as a way to keep producing away from traditional recording studios, many which couldn’t be used due to the pandemic. How successful has this been?
PW: I am extremely happy with what I’ve created regarding a selection of equipment akin to my own personal preferences and I’ve been more and more encouraged by the quality of my recordings and mixes in recent times. I’m not sure however what success can be measured by in this instance because it’s a creative choice of mine and I’m not doing it as a scheme to become a millionaire. I’m doing it because recording in a nice safe space is so importan. It feels like you’re on a holiday every time it’s somewhere new and you can have moments together with the band/artist that will be remembered fondly for a long time.
It’s still up to me however to pick, choose and contact artists I really want to work with, whom I believe will match with my own production philosophy. This certainly doesn’t work for every genre or every artist at all levels. I am as responsible for the success of a record as the quality of the band or artist is in the first place. It’s a scary scenario sometimes, but not as scary as booking a four-hour recording slot in a big city where parking costs £20 half a mile down the road and you need to record five tracks as quickly as possible. I avoid that as much as I can now because it’s unhelpful to everyone involved. Residential is my choice, especially when you can design a recording space yourself.
PB: For the more technical minded can you tell us a little about the set-up of the mobile?
PW: It’s had a few revisions over the years but the set up now is simply a 12 channel input, 8 channel output Pro Tools rig. I try however to select unique outboard equipment, rare and unlikely to be seen in a bedroom or sometimes even in a commercial studio. I’ve come to realise the importance of transformers within the signal path. I used to think tubes were the answer but without transformers, harmonic distortion isn’t distributed towards the bass end, which is where you hear people use the word warmth. The more transformers there are, the more it sounds like a record and that’s before anyone mixes or masters. I use a lot of ribbons, I’m a big fan of Coles/STC and AEA microphones, as all have transformers in their signal path. I’m also a big fan of Soyuz microphones. They use a toroidal transformer in their SU-023. I love that microphone. I also own a couple of Oktava ML-16s from the 1960s which I really like on guitars. It’s a bit of a left field choice but only just. I own more preamps than channels I can use simultaneously but that’s okay because I then have colour options for different sound sources. I used to think “this is good and/or this isn’t good” but it all depends on the source. To have five to six different preamp choices to choose from really makes a difference. It also makes me feel much more like a real engineer. I do like the Universal Audio outboard preamps, such as the 110/610/710 but I’m also a fan of a newer company called Useful Arts. They do an updated EF86 Telefunken style preamp which is extremely special. Weirdly, I think Ben Stiller has something to do with them.
I also feel the need for a killer vocal compressor nowadays. I did a bit of compression on the way in when I was in studios before Longcroft. 1176s were generally around in those studios before I was mobile but it all started with a DBX 160 on the first In Earnest EP. I’ve now gone down the vari-mu rabbit hole, which is a bit expensive unfortunately. There seems to be nothing better than a Highland Dynamics BG2. I also own a very unique Lisson Grove compressor currently being modified by its designer, John Hinson. John has been involved in so much recording equipment over the years that I’ve used, when I spoke to him on the phone for the first time I was beside myself that he wanted to help me. That RS124 circuit, popular for being used in the recording of the Beatles era, is the best sounding anything I’ve ever heard. It’s like cheating just playing audio through its tube circuit plus a couple of transformers. You don’t even need to have the compression circuit engaged. The next piece on my list is the 176, a tube version of the FET 1176. Reamp Electronics based in Dorset make a version and let you switch between builds with the original or modern transformers which interests me a lot. Retro Instruments also do a 176 version which I’ve heard and it sounds incredible.
PB: What are the main differences between recording in your mobile to producing in a more traditional studio?
PW: The word safety might sound a bit peculiar but I feel much safer nowadays being in control of the air bnb selection and being the only engineer. It makes me a bit sad to say that because making friends and having fun is what the music industry should be about. When you book a commercial studio, there is almost always an assistant trying to help or the booking comes with an engineer who wants to know what to do. Half the time, help isn’t always helpful, not because anyone is doing anything wrong but because I am an unorthodox engineer and the decisions I would make are completely backwards to an engineer dealing with all sorts of different sessions and genres each and every day. It’s not fair to judge them on my own philosophy so I end up being nice and trying to have an open discussion about why instead of getting on with the session. I’ve found it counterproductive to come into a studio for a couple of days and explain everything, only for that session to finish and the next time I turn up to that particular studio, it could be a year later and it’s a different engineer and I have to do the same process all over again. Liam Ross is still the best engineer I’ve ever worked with but I don’t even know if he’s engineering any more. Getting a person you’ve never met before is hard, especially when there is time pressure.
The technical aspects are also interesting. I’m usually hung up on the equipment too much and when budgets are tight and studios cost less and less, the quality of the microphones and outboard suffers. Although I know I should be less picky sometimes, Jack Joseph Puig who mentored me during a Mix With The Masters week in France always made the point that everyone uses the same plugins, speakers, microphones, preamps etc. If you buy something, it needs to be different, modified, altered to make a sound that no one else has. That’s obviously stuck with me, it’s just a shame some of that interesting outboard costs so much to buy, let alone modify. I’m really making a conscious decision to sound different and sometimes standard studio bookings are incapable of giving me that. If I could record every day in Abbey Road then life would be really fun but I’m actually really happy with my own selection of equipment which I can afford and the situation I’m creating for the bands I want to work with. At this moment in my recording career, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
PB: We were first introduced to your producing talents with your work on the first two albums by Hattie Briggs where you captured a lovely, warm, woody sound which suited Hattie’s music perfectly. Any plans for any future work with Hattie?
PW: I actually haven’t heard from Hattie for a couple of years. She asked me for some files back in 2018, presumably to remix ‘Young Runaway’. My Dad passed away around Christmas 2019, she sent a nice message then. I think that may have been it. I’ve reached out a couple of times since then to try to say hello over the lockdowns to see how she was but I never get a response. She lives much closer to me now than ever before, just twenty minutes down the road.
I find it difficult to look back at those two albums now, it’s also hard to believe how long ago they were. Hattie and her family were a big part of my life. I think ‘Red & Gold’ really meant something to me, probably because it was my first album as a producer. We (Warren Bassett and I) worked on those mixes over a six to nine month period, with different revisions being created through different summing equipment before we were happy and begun a release strategy. I still remember the final listen and Warren shaking my hand and being really pleased with what we had done. It’s as good as we could have got it and I think it really hit home how hard you had to work to get something to its full potential. ‘Young Runaway’, however, felt like the opposite approach. I was still tuning vocals on the morning I was meant to hand in a fully finished album and I also remember one of the writers being in tears on the phone to me about the end result of one of their tracks. We had just under three weeks with Warren again and that was the absolute final deadline. It felt like there was a lot of pressure to have it done by the PR company at the time. Even before the deadline, there were demands to have any version of any track uploaded online ASAP so they could be shopped around. It’s such a shame that the album felt forced because the songs were a big progression for Hattie and her career. The admin process was all just a bit too matter of fact as oppose to reacting accordingly and taking the time to get things right and not looking too far ahead.
I also still feel sadness when I think back at that small community of musicians we created around Hattie. Some of them were my friends from college or university or became friends during the process and they’ve mostly dropped contact with me now. It’s a bit of a stinging wound in a producer’s career and a very steep learning curve. Just like I’m on different revisions of equipment with my mobile studio, I’m also now on a different revision of personnel and I hate that life has forced that upon me. I wish Hattie all the best with everything but I think that will be it for us working together. I’d rather just hear how she’s getting on.
PB: According to your website you’ve spent most of your recent time producing tracks by Southend-On-Sea trio In Earnest. How did your connection with them happen?
PW: In Earnest are actually 3/4 of the members of Carousel. So I’ve been spending a lot of time growing and learning with those guys over the past five years or so. I met them at a Gabrielle Aplin Never Fade night in London. I used to attend a few times a year just to connect with artists I liked the sound of. It took me a year to persuade them to record their first EP with me.
After Carousel split, Tom Eatherton and I met up half way around the M25, had a big and accidently expensive lunch and chatted the whole thing through. He had a huge collection of his own songs ready to do something with. Eventually that led to in earnest being formed with both Sarah Holburn and Toby Shaer. I then worked on their first six track EP in 2018. We did a lot of preproduction and I still have all of those recordings as voice notes on my phone of practice sessions and conversations about musical direction. It really took a long time to get what the band were looking for, for us to adapt to what was coming out of LA/Nashville at the time. It was really all about Phoebe Bridgers in the beginning. She is now a household name but at the time she was very new. We took a lot of influence from her recording style from her ‘Stranger in the Alpes’ album and Elliott Smith influences such as double tracking vocals and mixed that in with our own style of live recordings, minimal overdubs and no click tracks. It also became about what Julien Baker was trying to achieve in her studio sessions from her ‘Turn Out The Light’s album. We were basically attempting to capture something of this new wave of production coming out of the US.
It was also during this first EP that a lot of the newer equipment decisions were being made regarding Longcroft Recording. I was experimenting with vocal microphones and had about 5 on loan from KMR, Sarah chose the Soyuz and Tom chose the AEA. It was the first time I’d ever been as pedantic as that about any equipment. Before then, I just selected/purchased the most expensive one I could or the most renowned and never questioned it.
PB: Were the songs you worked on with In Earnest all recorded on your mobile studio?
PW: Both EPs were recorded in an Air BnB. The first one was in Creeksea Barns in Essex and’ Reasons to Stay Alive’ was recorded in a private holiday barn in Kent. Mixing took the longest time because of the directions we were pushing towards. They were very creative processes, especially reasons to stay alive which took around nine months on and off and again, three to four mix revisions average until it was right. We then had to line up the masters so that they all played in sequence together without any gaps, adding sound effects here and there to the finished product. It did seem to be an entire year’s project.
PB: Having missed your previous work with In Earnest, their latest EP, ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’ is simply mind-blowing. Absolutely not what this pair of ears was expecting after reading the topics the EP covered ; it’s a beautiful, affecting piece of art. The fact that the six tracks form an endless cycle just adds to the power of the piece. Was the intention to make it a continuous piece there from the beginning?
PW: Thank you. Yes, the idea initially came from Sarah. She’s always been heavily influenced by the Beatles pretty much all her life and just said out loud one day, “Wouldn’t it be cool if… etc?.” I don’t’ remember if the initial gapless record idea included the loop at the end or not but I’m blaming Sarah here 100%. We were delayed recording in 2020 due to a lockdown and that allowed more music to be made available and a couple of tracks came from that delay. The track listing decision was then made before we had even recorded a note. The end of one song needed to start the next note of the next song or at least be within the key so it had to be organised. The idea itself didn’t take too much processing but it did end up being logistically challenging within Pro Tools.
In the end, we had to produce the 6 mastered tracks by Katie Tavini into an entire 22-minute WAV file and then cut up the tracks in Hofa DDP. I mainly remember the result that worked and I’ve blocked out the memory of the amount of different techniques that failed before that point. We didn’t even know if a gapless record would work on a streaming platform even after we’d uploaded it to Spotify before the release day but luckily it worked fine. This one really feels like a piece of art and I believe that’s very important for the progression of a band like this. It can’t just be single after single all the time anymore.
PB: How long did the EP take to record in total?
PW: Both EPs with the band only needed a five day week recording in a barn but in reality, they needed to rehearse and rehearse as much as possible, so it’s not just that five day period. They are all great musicians but it isn’t enough sometimes to just turn up and hope it will work. For the first EP there were a few nerves ,but this time however everyone knew their role, what was expected of them to complete each day, even who was cooking dinner on what night. It felt certainly a more confident and assured record from my recording standpoint. Hardly anything came up at all that needed to be redone, just a few decisions about tempo every now and then. That meant there was a lot of time to have fun and there’s a few videos of us just laughing hysterically throughout the recording sessions, like Sarah playing with vocoder effects that did end up staying on the record. I’ve also no idea why Toby decided to play a kick drum sample on a keyboard from a great distance using a giant candle after a long days recording, which could have taken 30 seconds to do by standing closer to the instrument but that’s what recording can do to you sometimes, even when it’s going well!
PB: What were the biggest challenges you faced in the recording of the EP?
PW: They’re like family to me and so when it all comes together at the end, all you think about are the good times and how much you loved creating this piece of work together, it’s almost sad to have finished. I suppose sleeping on the smallest bed known to man for four nights was a challenge, especially as by the end of the recording week we were convinced the barn was haunted and I’d hardly slept. I think the challenges were mostly on the band, trying to perform live as perfectly as possible each time, even finding the sound effects for between the tracks which they recorded locally at the beach and elsewhere. They made my life really easy for this one and constant communication about direction was key.
PB: Having worked with the band previously the band and yourself obviously enjoyed the experience enough to work together on ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’, how much of Peter Waterman is there in the songs?
PW: Hopefully none! I gave up writing a long time ago now. I still just see my job as an official cheerleader. I clap and cheer when it sounds great and I come up with some kindly worded suggestions when it doesn’t. I think there is very little of me in the songs themselves but there is probably quite a lot of me in the overall sound of the record, having both engineered and mixed it. For better or for worse, I don’t think anyone else would have made the record the way I did it and I really think having a sonic signature is becoming more and more important to me.
PB: Your production skills on your previous work, especially the sound you captured with Hattie Briggs, shone through. But with ‘Reasons To Stay Alive’ you seemed to have taken your talent to another level, are you pleased with the finished results? How do you place the EP in your body or work so far?
PW: Thank you again. I am very pleased which is rare. It is probably right at the top of my work list because of the artistic approach and the direction everyone was pulling in together as one. Easily one of my favourites to listen back to as well. I don’t pull funny faces remembering this thing I forgot to do or why didn’t I fix whatever, just like I do with many previous recordings. The key I think is it is a body of work which could remain untouched and unaltered for years in its current form and we would still all love it, I think that should be everyone’s goal in this extremely quick and easy technological world we are living in at the moment. It even sounds like the barn we recorded it in, which is also rare with all the sound proofing and isolation used in recordings nowadays.
PB: Have you any ideas about what your next project will be?
PW: I’m in contact with a few artists I really want to work with but nothing is booked at the moment. I’ve had a few four and five piece jazz bands want some work as well which could be cool to engineer on. Overall, I am very open to new projects but want to take my time picking and choosing the right ones leading up to next year. I see that philosophy as both a positive and a negative but I really feel like I just want to work with artists with the same mindset, genre appreciation and philosophy to me, otherwise I’m just acting like any other engineer and suddenly all of this feels like a real job.
PB: Thank you.
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